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Wednesday January 17, 2001

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Exhuming of a luxury car

Headline Photo

Photo courtesy of Patrick Nagatani

Patrick Nagatani's "Plymouth, Bisti Wilderness, New Mexico, U.S.A." depicts the excavation of a mysterious car from the New Mexican desert. This and other Ryoichi/Nagatani Excavation photos can now be seen at the UA Center for Creative Photography.

By Maggie Burnett

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Mysterious excavation photos now on display at CCP

The occupation of an archaeologist generally entails the excavation of burial remains, bits and pieces of pottery and ancient artifacts.

Now, luxury cars have made their way into this job description, said photographer Patrick Nagatani.

Nagatani, a professor at the University of New Mexico, has worked for 12 years, side-by-side with Japanese archaeologist Ryoichi, photographing the strange car excavations that are now on display at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography.

Since much mystery surrounds the excavations, this exhibit marks the first time the collection will show in its entirety.

The excavations began 14 years ago as the result of a mysterious set of maps given to Ryoichi by a American Indian shaman.

"Forty maps were given to (Ryoichi) in a leather satchel, 20 marking specific places on the planet," Nagatani said. "Experts helped them decipher the maps. They seemed to be in some sort of order."

Nagatani said that Ryoichi, along with 13 other archaeologists, then embarked on what was to be a 14-year long process of traveling the world in search of the map sites and the items buried there.

"The first site was in Peru. They found a Ferrari in one of the digs," Nagatani said. "It was radiocarbon dated to be over 200 years old. This was a dilemma."

Nagatani went on to say that Ryoichi and his team, digging up two sites each year, found a car buried at each of the map locations.

"Through radiocarbon dating, we found the cars were buried anywhere from 100 to 1000 years ago," he said.

Based on these figures, Nagatani said Ryoichi felt as though he had entered a time warp.

"The only way (these burials) could occur is if time could be bent or two things could exist at the same time," Nagatani said of Ryoichi's explanation for the buried cars.

Nagatani was handed the job of photographing the excavations after a chance meeting with Ryoichi while gambling in Las Vegas.

"He was at the same table I was," Nagatani said. "They were already two years into the archaeological digs. It was too good and amazing for me to forget."

Nagatani said he uses photography as his primary means of artistic expression.

"I like photography's ability to demonstrate and tell the 'truth,'" he said. "I'm interested in how science and art interact."

For the next 12 years, while still teaching at UMN, Nagatani said he routinely flew out to excavation sites all over the world to capture Ryoichi's discoveries on film.

"Ryoichi does not want the maps revealed, only certain elements of the photographs," Nagatani said.

Although the excavation exhibit has been open since Dec. 2, the CCP has invited Nagatani and his brother, Professor AndrŽe Nagatani, to speak.

"I'm mostly known for my photography, but I'm a storyteller as well," Nagatani said. "I'm interested in scientific technique, but primarily I'm an artist."

As a final note, Nagatani said that the purpose of his excavation photographs are to give the public a stronger grounding in reality.

"I'm interested in the idea of illusion in reality and in photography's ability to create a narrative - the unbelievable being the believable," Nagatani said. "That's the strategy. My photography helps these excavations be more believable."

Maggie Burnett can be reached at